Sunday, October 08, 2006

Defense Saves the Day

With a head coach purportedly adept at offensive play-calling and working with quarterbacks, the highest paid offensive line in the NFL, and a defense that finally has begun making opposing offenses look only as good as they actually are, one would suspect that the Minnesota Vikings had all their ducks in a row this season. But one would be wrong in so thinking.

Through five games, the Vikings stand at 3-2 and in second place in the NFC North, two games and a tie-breaker behind the Chicago Bears. Making that gap seem even larger is that, on Sunday, the Bears absolutely throttled the Buffalo Bills, a team that the Vikings lost to as a consequence of a dismal offensive performance, while the Vikings were scraping by the dismal Lions.

The Vikings' final 26-17 victory over the Lions doesn't do justice to just how close this game was to being the Lions' first victory of the season. Entering the fourth quarter, the Vikings trailed the Lions 17-3. And, despite moving the ball reasonably well for stretches, the Vikings were still without a touchdown, thanks, in large part, to another red-zone penalty, conservative and questionable offensive play-calling, dismal pass-blocking by the offensive line, and some horribly inept play by quarterback Brad Johnson.

For the fifth time this season, the Vikings had a game in which an offensive penalty derailed a drive inside the opponents' red zone. This time, Bryant McKinnie was the culprit. On the first drive of the game, with the Vikings having the ball 2nd and 9 from the Lions' 10-yard line, McKinnie was called for holding setting the Vikings back to the Lions' 20-yard line. Minnesota got seventeen of those yards back but settled for a chip shot field goal on fourth and two.

Not until the fourth quarter did the Vikings really attempt to move the ball again, settling for numerous pass plays behind the line of scrimmage that averaged approximately zero yards and appeared to have no value as a mechanism for setting up other, less suspect offensive plays.

Even when the Vikings attempted to move the ball in spite of Childress' inclination to settle for two yards per play, the offense had to overcome the ineptitude that continues to be the Vikings' offensive line--a line that opened some holes through which Chester Taylor was able to run on Sunday but which, more often than not, failed to live up to its now clearly fraudulent pre-season billing, particularly with its shoddy pass protection. Against a ragged, injury-ravaged Lions' defense, Johnson was consistently hurried and forced to rush his throws.

And when Johnson did have time to pass, one almost wished he had been sacked to save the pain of watching another horrible pass. In what can best be described as the reincarnation of Kurt Warner at the Metrodome, Johnson did his best to take Minnesota into the bye week a game under .500. Hesitancy passing, settling for pass plays with no prospect of picking up the very makeable first down on third down and short, throwing passes to the opposing team, and tossing yet another pick, Johnson was the reason that the Vikings almost lost today rather than the reason that they won.

But Johnson and the offensive line could not have accomplished all of their dubious feats without the inexplicable assistance of Childress. One series in particular lowlights Childress' implausible accomplishment of turning a mediocre offense run by former, offensively challenged head coach Mike Tice into one of the worst offenses in the NFL.

One sequence, in particular, sums up Childress' approach to calling plays. Facing a third and one from the Lions' 34-yard line, the Vikings opted for a bomb--a la Mike Tice playcalling. That play might have made sense had the receiver not been in double- or triple-coverage and if the Vikings had intended to go for the first down failing a conversion on third down. But neither was the case. Instead, the Vikings opted to line up for a fifty-one yard field goal by a kicker who had just had an extra point attempt blocked.

The long field goal attempt--disastrous if blocked--would have made sense if, in attempting the kick, Childress had reasoned that his defense would be able to stop the Lions if the kick failed. But, rather than attempt the field goal, Childress called for a pooch punt. And that made no sense whatsoever.

Despite the Vikings' futility covering kicks throughout the day, there is absolutely no reason to favor a high risk pooch punt off of a fake field goal attempt over a conventional punt. The fake field goal attempt runs the risk of a bad snap and confusion on the line that could lead to a turnover and there is no discernible added advantage to the ploy over the conventional punt out of bounds.

Moreover, the pooch punt signaled that Childress had confidence in his defense to hold the Lions. And if that was the case all along, why not actually attempt the long field goal? Or, better yet, why not try to convert a fourth and one from the Lions' 34-yard line? And if none of that made sense to Childress, then why not run a high percentage play on third and one rather than a high risk bomb? Maybe Childress was trying to show that a similar unwarranted and unsuccessful risk that he took against Chicago really does work. Or maybe Childress isn't quite the offensive guru that he purports to be.

Should the Vikings fail to reach the playoffs this season, Childress' offensive playcalling and his work with the offensive line will head the list of failures. And that might start a din within the Metrodome, sooner rather than later, of calls for yet another new head coach--defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin.

Up Next: Numbers and more numb-ers.

9 comments:

Lichty said...

I get the sense that Childress is so arrogant (he reminds me a lot of Lloyd Carr at my alma mater) that he will continue to let his team stagnate because to change would be to signal he may have been wrong.

The fans will turn on him very quickly if this continues and I see no end in sight. I hate to say it, but I think my initial impressions of Childress were wrong. He has that bad mix of arrogance and fear.

Anonymous said...

When the Vikes have the ball at the opponent's 30-40 yard line they should routinely think "This is four down territory". Their defense is playing well. Longwell can't kick a field goal from that distance. A punt will gain them only a few yards. Thus, they should call plays on third down, knowing that they will go for it on fourth. The bomb was an OK call on tird down, but the fourth down call, as you said, was inexcusablbly dumb. Let's hope they start going for it on fourth down. There is statisical analysis by an economist, Romer, that shows that coaches should call many more fourth down plays.

Vikes Geek said...

Lichty,

Childress actually comes across as less arrogant in his weekly (and utterly, mind-numbingly worthless) radio show than he initially appeared to be upon his hiring. But that doesn't mean that he does not have a tremendous ego that blinds him to his faults as a coach. I said after the Bears' game that Childress was already exhibiting signs of a coach unwilling simply to admit that he is not the offensive guru that he portrayed himself to be when he commented that it was merely a bad week for the offense. Childress made it worse by dividing camps and juxtaposing "his" squad (the offense) with "them" (the defense). That's wasn't a good sign then and it looms as even more ominous as the season progresses and Childress continues to struggle in demonstrating that his contribution to the team is as it was billed to be. The offense is bad. The offensive line is as bad as it was at the end of the season last year (or as good, depending on your view). The team continues to take critical penalties, particularly the offensive line. The primary deep threat cannot catch or gain separation in man coverage. And little things are starting to happen that look like backsliding--like the awful special teams' play today.

To date, the only coach that has lived up to the pre-season accolades is Tomlin. And it's not even a close call.

VG

Vikes Geek said...

Anony,

Romer didn't have too difficult of a task proving his thesis if it was that NFL coaches should call more fourth down plays. Most NFL coaches clearly favor long field goal attempts over fourth down attempt because it is the safe call. Few will criticize the call because it is the norm and the norm is rarely challenged. Of course, until this year, most NFL coaches went for two whenever it would close a five-point gap to three or a nine-point gap to seven--no matter the point in the game. Why? Because while NFL coaches know football they seem entirely oblivious to statistics and how to use them until they have been beaten over the head with them over and over and over again--i.e., until everyone else is already doing it. Obviously, that's a difficult cycle to complete.

What coaches ought to care about is the probability of success of a given play in a given situation, the alternatives and their probabilities of success, and the consequences of success or failure for the given play. It sounds simple, but few NFL coaches appear to apply the logic. That's why they do what Childress did today. Hopefully, Childress is one of the curve setters going forward rather than one of the overdue followers.

VG

Anonymous said...

Considering the season is so young, I am not ready to call the offensive line and head coach frauds. Time will tell, but for now, I will reserve such a harsh judgment. What we need sooner rather then later is a real #1 reciever. Porter? I hope so.

Vikes Geek said...

Anony,

I'm not calling Childress a fraud, I'm calling his self-designation as an offensive guru fraudulent to this point. He has added the top left guard in the NFL, returned one of the top centers, added the running back that he stated would fit perfectly into his system--whatever that is--and lost one receiver, a receiver who did little for the Vikings as a receiver last year and has done nothing for the Packers since joining them. To actually take a step backward from the offenses run under Mike Tice is no mean feat. Either Childress grossly overestimated his offensive talent or he grossly overestimated his ability to call plays. While I think there is support for arguing that the Vikings lack talent on offense, there is even more support for questioning an offensive game plan that favors the backward pass over the forward pass and the high risk forward pass over the low risk short pass or run on makeable short-yardage plays. This isn't just players failing to execute, it's players being put into situations where execution too often is irrelevant or in which execution is virtually impossible.

The sign of a good coach is what that coach does with what he has. To date, Childress has done less than Tice did with what each had at their disposal. And if that's good, I don't want to see bad.

I suspect that the Vikings are interested in Porter but that the Raiders still think that someone will cough up a high draft pick for their disgruntled wideout. There's also the issue of salary cap and it could be that the Vikings have been unable to negotiate a deal that fits under their 2006 cap, even though both teams want to work a deal. At some point, the Raiders presumably will recognize the merit of getting something for Porter rather than nothing.

VG

John said...

Well, you can crab all you want to about the play sequence that ended with the fake field goal/punt, but it worked. It put the Lions in very poor field position and led to a Vikings score.

Vikes Geek said...

John,

Just because the Vikings won the game doesn't mean that the play was called correctly--or the play before that. It's that kind of mindset that allows a coach to look at a dubious play call and rely on it again later to his and his team's detriment. That's why it matters, even in victory, what the thought process was on a given set of plays rather than merely what the outcome was.

VG

PJW said...

Anyone know what Bevell does other than work with players on technique and watch from the booth on gameday? Childress did good hiring a ramrod for the defense. Perhaps he should scrap the Andy Reid method and get a high powered OC. Then he can concentrate on fitting all the pieces in the big picture.